UK scientists can now genetically modify human embryos

Embryos being placed onto a CryoLeaf ready for instant freezing

Embryos being placed onto a CryoLeaf ready for instant freezing

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SCIENTISTS have been given permission to genetically modify human embryos for the first time in the UK.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regulator has approved a licence to use gene editing in research.

Scientists, who are searching for clues to what happens in the first seven days after fertilisation and want to investigate miscarriage, will not be able to implant the embryos into women.

A statement from the HFEA said: “Our Licence Committee has approved an application from Dr Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute to renew her laboratory’s research licence to include gene editing of embryos.

“The committee has added a condition to the licence that no research using gene editing may take place until the research has received research ethics approval.

“As with all embryos used in research, it is illegal to transfer them to a woman for treatment.”

Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute want to employ an advanced “gene editing” method of making precise changes to DNA to alter the activity of genes in early-stage embryos.

The scientists also plan to use “transfection” techniques which involve inserting genetic material into cells.

The embryos - consisting of just a small number of cells - would be donated by couples undergoing IVF treatment who do not need them.

Under the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, they can only be used for basic research, must be destroyed after two weeks, and cannot be implanted in the wombs of women.

But the new approval from the HFEA means the new work could begin in the next few months.

Earlier this year, Dr Niakan said: “We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby.

“The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood.”

Dr Niakan has said that, in the long term, the research could mean the embryo with the greatest chance of developing could be implanted or genetics could be “tweaked” to maximise an embryo’s chance of survival.

Scientists propose to use new methods based on CRISPR/Cas9, which allows very specific alterations to be made to the genome.

CRISPR/Cas9 is an immensely powerful technique invented three years ago which allows DNA to be “cut and pasted” using molecular “scissors”.

It could lead to huge leaps forward in science and medicine but critics have warned that the pace of change is too fast.

They fear misuse of such technology could lead to potentially dangerous treatments and “designer babies”.

One major concern is that making changes to embryonic DNA could have unknown harmful effects throughout an individual’s body. There is also the risk of passing genetic “mistakes” on to future generations.

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